By Scott Robertson
The December meeting of the Washington County Commission is generally a lightly attended affair with little in the way of substantive action. It is traditionally the shortest meeting of the year, as anticipation of all manner of sweets, confections and soft drinks that await the commissioners at a holiday reception following adjournment drives their appreciation for brevity of discussion.
Monday’s agenda, however, includes a few noteworthy items for consideration and potential action.
Buying Big Yellow
The commission plans to borrow money to pay for new school buses for the second year running, and the time to approve that move is running short.
The buses for the 2016-2017 school year need to be bid next month so those buses can be manufactured in time for the system to take delivery by the start of the school year.
The estimated total price for the new buses, based on the current bid, is $898,252. The county pays for the buses upon receipt.
The resolution to be considered has already been approved by both the Health, Education and Welfare Committee and Budget Committee.
It authorizes the commission to borrow from the debt service fund to pay up to $900,000 specifically for the acquisition of new school buses. The note has to be repaid to the debt service fund in two years. It’s anticipated the county will reimburse that fund through the issuance of special school bus bonds.
The commission approved the interfund borrowing for the fiscal year 2016 buses last year. The county’s school bus fleet is in a constant state of turnover as some buses age out every year. The fleet currently includes 110 total buses.
Charging Out of 1977
Also being brought to the commission from the Budget Committee is a recommendation to authorize the county purchasing agent to replace the county’s decrepit accounting software with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. The county’s current accounting software was written by Bridge, a company that no longer exists. The county has been using that software package since before Ronald Reagan was elected President, and since July 1, every day that has passed has seen an increase in the likelihood it would be hacked, as there has been no technical support available to the county since that date.
The proposed new software package is marketed by a company named Skyward, Inc., which has for many years provided accounting software for public education systems, and which recently moved into broader government systems. First year costs for the Skyward system are anticipated to be $368,000.
The Budget Committee is recommending the commission take $290,000 from the county unemployment reserves (which currently stand at more than $400,000 and are in no danger of being used up in the foreseeable future, according to Meredith) in addition to the $78,000 of unused capital outlay proceeds previously dedicated to the ERP software purchase.
The $368,000 includes fees, project management costs, and new equipment including monitors, scanners and a high speed printer.
The redistricting map that would bring the commission from 25 members to 15 when the next elections roll around is also on the agenda in December.
During the 2014 elections the two hot button issues were taxpayer funding of commissioner benefits and the voters’ desire to shrink the commission. The current commission is made up largely of the candidates who promised to eliminate taxpayer funded benefits and to cut the number of commissioners. Cutting the benefits was the easy part. Bringing forward a plan to shrink the commission has required a good deal of work.
The Reapportionment Committee, made up of one member from each existing district, has pored over maps for months. While that work has been going on, however, time has been passing, and some commissioners, faced with the possibility of losing their own seats in the commission-shrinking process, are rumored to be rethinking their campaign promise.
Second Verse, Same as the First
A year ago, the commission sent a request to the county’s legislative delegation in Nashville, State Representatives Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss and State Senator Rusty Crowe. The request asked that the legislators introduce legislation to bring the county in line with the rest of the state in its handling of budget amendments. Currently Washington County is the only county in Tennessee still required to follow a 1957 statute mandating the county commission approve all budget changes during a fiscal year. The state gave county mayors and budget committees more control over those matters in every other county in 1991.
Representative Van Huss, however, sent the commission’s request back with a request that the full commission have a roll call vote in favor of the change before he would shepherd it through the legislature. So Monday night the commission will once again vote, this time with a roll call (last year’s vote was a voice vote).
One other important bit of business will be conducted the day after the commission meets. The Washington County School Board and the Health, Education and Welfare Committee of the county commission are scheduled to hold a joint meeting Tuesday evening at 6:30.
The school board makes decisions on the priorities of the school system, but the county commission is the schools’ funding body. This can be an awkward arrangement, but, for the first time in recent memory, the board will meet with a significant number of board members to try to raise the level of understanding and cooperation between the board and the commission.
Director of Schools Ronald Dykes said the school board has already published its priorities for the system, including renovations to the county schools in Jonesborough, but that he welcomes any effort by the commission to improve communication with the board. “This is the first attempt by the Washington County Commission Education Committee to have a thorough discussion with the entire school board. I applaud the willingness of this commission to act as an advocate for our school-related needs. It is long overdue.
“We have had some interested commissioners in years past that have served on previous education committees, but their ability to carry the baton on behalf of the school board was limited,” Dykes said. “This new committee has a better chance to increase the dialogue so in full commission meetings, the committee itself can speak intelligently about the specifics of school needs. That hasn’t been possible in the past.”
The joint meeting is scheduled to take place at the schools central office building in Jonesborough.